Finding a therapeutic boarding school, residential treatment center, or wilderness therapy program for a troubled 18 year-old is one of the most challenging and heartbreaking problems we see among the parents we serve, who usually have been watching their child spiral out of control for several years. At age 18, students have the legal right to walk out of a program, and parents for the most part have no recourse. Students who enter into a program late often don’t complete their program unless they’ve reached a point where they recognize that they need to stay.
Which Programs Will Take My 18 Year-Old?
Four types of therapeutic boarding schools, residential treatment centers, and wilderness therapy programs exist with regard to placement of students who are 18 years of age:
- Programs which will not take residents 17.5 years or older, period.
- Programs which will take residents at 17.5 years, if the program directors believe there is enough time before they turn 18 to get the student healthy enough to recognize their need for help.
- Programs which will take residents at 18 years, but only if the resident is willing to go.
- Programs which will take residents at 18 years as a court-ordered alternative to jail time.
Let’s address each of these.
Programs which will not take residents 17.5 years or older, period. This represents a large chunk of programs within the therapeutic boarding school, residential treatment center, and wilderness therapy world. These programs are either unequipped to deal with 18 year-olds, do not have separate housing for adult residents, or state laws and licensing prevent them from accepting adult residents at all. Surprisingly, some state laws allow students to walk off campus well before they turn 18, and in some jurisdictions, if the child is 17.5 years old and they run away, law enforcement will not go looking for the child. Make sure the program you are looking at is not in a state that will allow your student to walk off campus before age 18.
Programs which will take residents at 17.5 years, if the program directors believe there is enough time before they turn 18 to get the student healthy enough to recognize their need for help. A lot of factors come into play when directors are making the decision to place a resident who is 17.5 years old. If your child has been acting out for a considerable amount of time, he or she has exhibited physical violence in the past, has been diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), or the level of mental health problems exhibited by your teenager are extensive, these programs will most likely not take your child. Sometimes the best route to go in this case is to place your child in a wilderness therapy program for highly intensive and effective short-term therapy, after which you may be able to place your child in a program that can take willing 18 year-olds.
Programs which will take residents at 18 years, but only if the resident is willing to go. The list of these programs is relatively small, because students who are willing to go to a program one day often don’t have the capacity or the fortitude to know that they need to stay long-term. Getting unhealthy 18 year-olds into a program is already a pretty hard sell, keeping them there when they are put in the position of having to confront themselves is even more difficult. However, if your child has had enough therapy and time to reorient their thinking, or if they have clearly made progress in some areas, they may see their need to be in a program. Mentorship, discipleship, and substance abuse programs built to help struggling young men and women exist all throughout the country, but they generally do not take hard mental health cases, and the resident must be willing to go.
Programs which will take residents at 18 years as a court-ordered alternative to jail time. Judges love alternatives to jail-time. If you can provide that alternative before a sentence is rendered, the judge will likely accept the alternative, with the condition that if the child does not complete their program, they will be going to jail. The number of therapeutic boarding schools, residential treatment centers, and wilderness therapy programs which can operate under these conditions is very small, but they do exist. These programs usually have special requirements and can only take a certain type of student. However, these are some of the programs most well equipped to deal with 18 year-olds who are struggling.
The Best Option is Avoiding This Problem Altogether
I really don’t want to come across as unempathetic here, because I personally recognize that many families are in a huge bind with their teenager who is turning 18 soon. So I apologize greatly if those of you who read this don’t feel that I am empathizing or recognizing your struggle. What I do want to do, however, is encourage those families who have a younger teenager to get help now rather than later. We talk to so many parents every year who called us a year ago, now having reached an unbearable breaking point with their teenager who is now close to turning 18 years old. We try our hardest to provide information about the best resources for their child, but often the parents we talk to end up with very few viable options. It’s certainly not a hopeless situation, just a much more difficult one.
Remember when you were a teenager? You probably remember your high school years more vividly than any other time in your life. That’s because the high school years are the most formative years in our lives. Not only does waiting another year give your teenager the chance to "stew" in their problems, they will also remember their unhealthy behaviors for the rest of their life. A year is a huge amount of time for a teenager.
Don’t wait to place you struggling teenager into a therapeutic boarding school, residential treatment center, or wilderness therapy program before they turn 18 years old, or even 17 years old, or even 16 years old. I encourage you to take that leap now, rather than paying the consequences later down the road. If you don’t know the right questions to ask, we can help you ask the right questions, or find someone who does and listen to what they have to say, it may just save your teen’s life.